Maurice Sendak (illustrations): The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present

This review has been revised from its original publication on Green Man Review.

We get a fair amount of art books here: not surprising, given our nature. Some are truly awful, some are good, and many are exception. The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present is so good that Maria Nutick, our new Book Editor, was drooling over it when she spotted it in a pile of art books that were awaiting assignment. I claimed it, as it is the companion volume to an earlier work, The Art of Maurice Sendak, that came out in 1980 and is part of the art collection that we have in our garret flat. (We may not have much wall space, but we have extensive book shelves!) Sendak has fascinated me since I saw his version of The Nutcracker many years ago in Seattle while doing a concert tour tour there. As the Pacific Northwest Ballet notes on its Web site

Pacific Northwest Ballet celebrates the 20th anniversary of Nutcracker, November 28-December 28. Dazzling audiences for 20 years, Nutcracker in the new McCaw Hall is the must-see special event of the season. Nutcracker‘s brilliant blend of Maurice Sendak’s costumes and sets, Kent Stowell’s magical choreography, together with Tchaikovsky’s beloved music performed by the acclaimed PNB Orchestra, create a storybook world enjoyed by children and adults alike.

So I bought the earlier work at a book store in order to have a much better appreciation of Sendak and his ever-so-amazing work.

That work, though fairly costly these days, is well-worth seeking out as it has a nice biography of the artist, covering him and his parents, Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. The work represented therein has, I believe, a more innocent, less dark feel to it than much of the work in the second volume has. Certainly as it predates his work on The Nutcracker, the best known project here is Where The Wild Things Are, his 1963 children’s work whose hero Max tames the Wild Things ‘by staring into all their yellow eyes and not blinking’. Another project of his worth seeing is his Brothers Grimm work, The Juniper Tree and Other Tales, a two volume set of these tales from 1973, though the translation isn’t nearly as good as the translation that Jack Zipes did (The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 1987). Neither Lore Segall or Randall Jarrell has in me opinion the feel for the original source material that Zipes does. However the illustrations by Sendak are so good that you’ll want to see them, so picking up The Art of Maurice Sendak will allow you to do so.

You will likely never have heard of the author for the first volume, Selma G. Lanes, but you will no doubt know Tony Kushner; in the early 1990s, he scripted the epic, seven-hour, two-part, Broadway blockbuster Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes which earned for Kushner a Pulitzer and so many other awards that I’ll not detail them here. Tony has been with friends with Maurice for a number of years now and worked with him on Brundibar, a children’s book which our reviewer says ‘was an opera, one written to be performed and accompanied by children. Scored and written in the late 1930s by Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister (respectively) for performance by the children of an orphanage in Prague, the show didn’t see the stage until Krasa, along with tens of thousands of other Czech (and German, Austrian, and Danish) Jews, was sent to the ghetto at Theresienstadt (Terezin). There rewrote it to make the message of resistance against oppressors even stronger, and began to teach it to the children. For the performers, the work became a refuge from the horror of their lives. For those imprisoned in the ghetto, the show became a source of hope. Between 1942 and the end of the war, Brundibar was performed more than fifty times.’

In a Guardian interview online, Tony noted ‘Maurice Sendak and I have been good friends for a decade. His early books were a central part of my first experience of literature, as they were for many Americans of my generation. Sendak books are still central to American children, though not necessarily the same Sendak books. I grew too old for picture books — or at least I believed I had to pretend I had — a year or two before Where The Wild Things Are was published in 1963.’

Certainly the tone of the second volume is more friendly, less dry than the earlier volume, as it in large part now feels like a conversation between two friends. Yes, it has the same design as the earlier volume, but it’s just is a better look at Maurice than the earlier book. Tony traces Sendak’s life and work over the past twenty odd years, both in the area of children’s literature and, ahem, more adult material. It obviously covers The Nutcracker in loving detail, but it also has the more adult delights of The Love for Three Oranges Opera. On pages 120 and 121, you find the finished water-colour for the show curtain. Please note the lovely bare tits with a masked male grasping the nipple of one tit. Friends, this is definitely not the same Sendak who delighted children for generations!

Indeed this volume shows that Sendak has become much more than a merely outstanding illustrator; it appears that he has become, as Kushner hints, ‘a wild Russian modernist-fantasist’. The Love for Three Oranges Opera design is every bit as good as a story as the opera itself must have been, and this theme of illustrations as tales in and of themselves repeats itself again and again. Even the storyboards of The Nutcracker suggest a dark fable from some lost European nation — check out the tri-fold illustration starting on page 131 to see what I mean by this statement! And costume studies for this ballet would not out of keeping with the design that Francesca LoSchiavo did for The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen. This is a lovely dark stuff indeed!

As good as the Kushner text is, and it is among some of the finest non-fiction writing I’ve ever encountered, it’s the illustrations that’ll make you gasp with delight. In addition to the already noted Opera artwork, there are less adult delights, but still interesting. (I know — get me mind out of the gutter! Not that I want to do so.) Consider the poster for the Julliard Opera Center production of Hånsel und Gretel (sic — it’s a German production) which shows a witch out of some folk tale that Bela, our resident Balkan violinist, might tell to children on a cold winters night. Why there’s even a green man here (see page 188) that was the cover illo for a biography of Herman Melville! Worth noting as last note in this review is the interesting look at Brundibar, both the book by Sendak and Kushner, and the Chicago Opera Theater production this year. Like the Peter Jackson directed Lord of The Rings, there are marked differences between the two versions. I’ll not say which is better, but rather that the creative process results in decisions being made out of necessity!

If you have more than a passing interest in Sendak, you’ll want this book. Though slightly pricey — about the same as good quality Indian take-away for a small group — it’s worth the money. I certainly will be happy to make room for this on our book shelves!

(Abrams, 2003)

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